Circus Myths about Education & Conservation

The circus industry often claims to be saving endangered species, notably the Asian elephant, through captive breeding. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 As criticism about the use of wild animals in circuses has grown, the industry has responded with claims that performing animals educate children about biology and conservation, and that circuses are saving endangered species, notably the Asian elephant, through captive breeding. Both of these claims are false.

The Education Myth

 Most circuses claim that performing wild animals act as “ambassadors for their species” and that they are an effective form of educating young people. This claim is not supported by any “empirical” research.  In fact, circuses have not produced any evidence at all that what they are saying is true.

Watching wild animals perform at the circus is not educational. Other than their size, shape and colour, performing wild animals bear little resemblance to their counterparts in nature, so there is little to be learned by watching them.

The animals engage in few, if any, of their usually complex range of natural behaviours, such as hunting and foraging; playing; maternal care-giving; finding appropriate rest areas; building nests, day beds and shelters; evading predators; and navigating, to name just a few. Day after day, most of them perform the same very simple, unchallenging routines by rote.

Circuses often claim that all of the movements and tricks their animals perform are simply extensions of their natural behaviours. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Except for very basic movements, such as walking and jumping, many of the tricks that wild animals perform are artificial, potentially dangerous and would never be seen in nature. Some examples from Canadian circus performances include tigers jumping through hoops of fire, elephants walking on their hind legs, chimpanzees riding horses and bears doing headstands on rotating disco balls.

Despite the fact that circuses encourage the belief that watching performing wild animals is in some way educational, there is no evidence to support that claim. In actual fact there is no educational value in watching performing wild animals in completely artificial settings, performing unnatural behaviours. The true physical, psychological and social capabilities of wild animals are diminished, distorted and misrepresented in circuses.

The Conservation Myth 

The circus industry often claims to be saving endangered species, notably the Asian elephant, through captive breeding. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The majority of the world’s leading elephant experts and conservationists don’t recognize captive breeding as a legitimate elephant conservation strategy. They believe the best way to save elephants is to prevent loss of habitat and to curtail poaching for their ivory tusks.

59 of the 77 elephants currently in North American circuses were caught in the wild and each year the captive population decreases due to illness, injury and disease. The North American captive elephant population is not self-sustaining. Very few elephants have ever been born in circuses and the number of adult deaths has substantially outpaced the number of births. Elephant breeding in circuses has been an unmitigated failure.

Even if there were more captive elephant births, there is no chance that any of these animals would ever be returned to the wild. The survivors would simply replace the performing adults that died.

The two biggest problems facing elephants in the wild is loss of habitat and poaching for their ivory tusks. Saving habitat and protecting wild elephants is far more cost effective than trying to maintain and breed elephants in captivity. If circuses are truly interested in elephant conservation, they would be far more involved in legitimate field conservation initiatives and would abandon any attempts at elephant breeding.

The breeding record of circuses is dismal and circus elephant populations are dropping each year. Circuses have no legitimate role to play in the conservation of Asian or African elephants. Claims by circuses that they are saving elephants through captive breeding make for good public relations but do little to help elephants.